Peace education can be defined as education that will help students acquire the values and knowledge to develop the behavior, attitudes and skills to enable them to live in harmony with themselves, other people and the natural environment. Koichiro Matsuura, the previous director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), wrote that peace education is of "fundamental importance to the mission of UNESCO and the United Nations." The philosophical foundations of peace education are derived from the Kantian notion of duty. Its ethical rationale is based on several schools of thought.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, peace education has undergone several evolutions, focusing on pressing topics that have changed over time. For example, peace educators have focused at various times on opposing nuclear power, increasing environmental responsibility, fostering communications skills, encouraging nonviolence, advocating democracy as a form of government, raising awareness of universal human rights, and breaking down racial and gender barriers. The most popular topics covered in peace education in the early 21st century include conflict resolution training, human rights education and democracy education.
One of the main thrusts of peace education is education about democracy and the political processes that are associated with conflict. Peace educators believe that the democratic process increases opportunities for resolving conflicts peacefully and decreases the risk of war or other forms of conflict. Peace education also sees democracy as a system of government that promotes tolerance among the various people who live within a nation's borders or within any population center. The main skills that peace education in this area tries to teach are critical thinking, coalition building, tolerance and compromise, as well as the idea of being a conscientious objector.
All forms of peace education aim to create a generation of responsible citizens who are able to hold their governments accountable. Peace education activities place students in situations where they have to support their position while still respecting the opinions of the other participants. The main philosophical basis for this approach is that a democratic society reduces the chances of a conflict occurring, so therefore, creating democratic societies should enhance the potential for peaceful co-existence throughout the world.
In peace education programs that focus on conflict resolution, the lessons normally center on different social-behavioral reasons for conflict. Students are encouraged to resolve disputes through negotiation and mediation, and are taught anger management skills that will help them negotiate high-pressure situations and also improve their ability to communicate. Communication involves listening, identifying needs, taking turns and separating facts from emotions.
Participants in these programs also learn to take responsibility for their behavior and to suggest creative solutions to problems. One of the underlying aims of this form of peace education is to get participants to realize that there are many peaceful ways to resolve a conflict that do not include defeating those who have an opposing viewpoint.
The last main thrust of peace education is to raise awareness of human rights in order to build a peaceful and utopian global community. Peace educators want participants to commit to a vision of a global society where everyone is at peace and where personal freedoms are legally protected from threats of oppression, violence and indignity. Lessons help students recognize violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how to promote tolerance both at the individual and societal levels. The main skills acquired by students involve nonviolent methods of conflict resolution.
Human rights education unfortunately can also create the potential for conflict, as groups of people become aware of rights they may not yet enjoy and feel they have no other choice but to obtain these rights by using violence. Peace education typically takes place in countries where there have been long-lasting national and international conflicts, such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestinian Territories, Cyprus, Rwanda and the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia.